Helping Your Reader One Comma at a Time

Burns, Stu
Stu Burns

Stu Burns is a fixture at the once-a-month Fine Lines reading/editing meetings.  The following essay he penned is all about the importance of solid, smart punctuation.  With that in mind read (and write) on.

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By Stu Burns, prose editor for Fine Lines

Punctuation, especially using commas, isn’t the exciting, sexy part of writing. It doesn’t usually inspire carpe diem moments with rebellious, creative souls rushing to build barricades or give eulogies to technicians of the nonrestrictive clause. Comma use is more like personal hygiene. People notice, even if they are too polite to mention it. Some people really don’t care, especially if their own hygiene or comma use isn’t that great. As a rule, though, it is probably a good idea to get this sort of thing right. That is why this blog entry came to be. I am going to share some rules out of the MLA Handbook and boldface some examples as I go.

Commas divide sentences, making them easier to read. When a writer leaves out a comma that rightfully belongs, the words mush together and become hard to understand. When a writer puts commas in the wrong places, they create divisions where there should be a flow of language. For example, commas go between adjectives that modify the same noun, like when you are describing a big, fat, fearsome, hairy raccoon. You would not use a comma describing an intelligent history teacher, though. In this case, the words “history teacher” make a noun, and putting a comma in there would break up the language when it should flow.

Commas also guide a reader by adding structure. If your sentence begins with an introductory phrase, use a comma to set it apart. This is especially important when you begin a sentence with a conjunction (like I just did) or a preposition. Joining two independent clauses with a conjunction also calls for structure, so use a comma when you do this. You do need the conjunction when you do this, though. If you try to use a comma by itself to join two short sentences, you get a run-on sentence. These are bad; structure is good. (And, yes, you can use a semicolon to join independent clauses. Some people do not like that, though.)

As anyone with a bottle of sriracha in the cupboard knows, it is important to know when not to do something. This applies to commas. Structure is good, but not when it breaks up words that should go together. The subject of a sentence and the verb that shows what the subject is doing should never be separated by a comma. Take this sentence:

“A transport ship full of brave soldiers, charged onto Omaha Beach.”

The comma in that sentence throws up a wall between the soldiers and what they are doing. Get rid of it.

Along the same lines, commas should not separate a verb and its object. This is a little harder to recognize. Take this example:

“The grizzled author sat and wrote, a long dissertation about an obscure topic that concerned no one but himself.”

The comma above breaks up the writing (the verb) from what is being written (the object). This is confusing. That comma needs to go.

Difficult as it may be for some people to believe, there has been a nasty war of words in the past few years about one way to use commas. Like the example with the adjectives above, commas separate a series of nouns, phrases, or clauses. See that comma I just used before the conjunction “or”? The comma before the conjunction that ends a list is called the “Oxford comma,” and there are some people who feel that it is unnecessary. Author James Thurber once had a fight with his editor over the phrase “red, white, and blue.” In Thurber’s own words, “All those commas make the flag seem rained on.” While less cluttered writing is usually a good thing, leaving the Oxford comma out can cause problems. Take this example:

“The sheriff spoke with two prisoners, his wife, and his mother.”

Without the Oxford comma and the structure it gives to the sentence, we get this:

“The sheriff spoke with two prisoners, his wife and his mother.”

Now it sounds like the beleaguered constable has his beloved spouse and parent in the pokey. There are a number of memes floating around the internet that demonstrate the Oxford comma in less polite ways, but kids read this blog, so you will have to find them yourself. I am sure there are fine, honest, hardworking people who don’t use the Oxford comma, but the problems you face leaving it out probably outweigh the gains. My advice is that you use it.

There are several other rules about using commas that are a little more technical. Some “inserted” phrases, such as parenthetical comments or nonrestrictive modifiers, should be set apart with commas. The same applies to alternative or contrasting phrases, even short ones. On the other hand, do not use commas between parts of compound subjects, compound verbs, compound objects, or between two parallel subordinate elements. These are a little more perilous; even experienced writers stumble around these rules occasionally. My personal least-favorite punctuation trouble is using commas in quotations. Maybe someday I’ll figure it out.

Good punctuation is essential for good writing, but hammering home rules is never fun, and spending valuable writing time consulting grammar references may not be the best idea. In that spirit, I will leave you with a piece of advice that did not come out of any style sheet. If it is difficult to figure out how you should use commas in a sentence, do yourself a favor and rephrase what you are saying. If you have a rough time writing, your audience will have a hard time reading, and no one wants to struggle when they read. It might be a challenge for you to let go of some beautiful phrase that blossomed from your mind like a lotus from the navel of a primordial creator, but the simpler language that you find to replace it may prove to be even more charming. In other words, if you find yourself fighting with anyone about how to use commas, stop what you are doing and rewrite. Some things are worth fighting over; comma usage isn’t one of them.





Mondays with Martin: My Child, My Journal

By David Martin
By David Martin

A person’s writing may develop into many things. My attempts at creative writing take the form of a journal, a personal warehouse of ideas and feelings. These bits and pieces expand into larger ideas or are used to support other thoughts that come later. My journal began as a skinny, empty, three-ring notebook and evolved into a robust creation with a personality of its own.

My first attempts to originate something from a non-artistic life, bound in the past to mediocrity, surprised me. Without a conscious effort on my part, this unassuming notebook began eating pages scribbled with pathetic sentences, mostly unconnected, didactic, and plain. A few pages held feeble attempts at poetry, stilted, forced rhyming patterns on the most boring topics and secretly hid some scattered, embarrassing attempts at describing the passions of a mid-life crisis or two.

Without knowing what I was seeing, the birth of a journal took place before my eyes. The thing increased its appetite. From a page a week, it soon demanded a page every couple of days. As it got bigger, it enjoyed eating more. It wanted to be fed daily, then ten or twelve times a week. What began as a weak, scrawny creature developed muscles and a healthy attitude towards survival. Each time its covers opened to consume more pages, I sensed the bellows of lungs expanding as though it aggressively inhaled new life.

With increased bulk between the covers, its lips pushed wider apart. It began to smile at me, as it sat on the shelf across the room. I imagined it standing up and strutting in front of those other notebooks that kicked sand in its face when it was just a little child. Now that it became aware of its own mortality, it insists on the four basic health groups for good writing; literature, spelling, grammar, and composition.

Like a parent, I am learning a lot about myself by watching my new child at play, and I think I see the time coming shortly when I will have to find it a name. What would other people think if I did not have a name for my new baby? When it begins to talk, will it develop a psychological problem stemming from a lack of self-confidence without an identity of its own?

Nicholas Notebook? Julia Journal? Danny Diary? Bradley Biography? Ashley Album? Pilar Page? Elizabeth Exposition? Imogene Imagination? Karma Klassic? Big Bubba Book?

At times, I think my journal is a gold fish in a bowl swimming around in circles without much room to explore or opportunity to develop, while others watch me from a position outside my vision and feel a sort of pity at my writing inadequacy. Often, I feel clumsy like Godzilla smashing Tokyo. Of course, some pages show me to be nothing but a large mouth bass looking for sucker’s hook. Other pages convince me that I am a lazy dog waiting in the sun for that creative idea to come by, as I continue to slumber in ignorance.

In rare moments, my little friend also convinces me I am a rose bush with the softest petals, and I celebrate my uniqueness. My back arches proudly when the pages open to something worth reading a second time. It is a second backbone, which supports me when times are tough. My journal, the teacher, explains to me inner ideas that are hard to discuss with others. It acts as a prism reflecting the light of shadowy, mental images. It sings the blues to me in a rhythm I can understand. It is the older brother and sister I never had. It is both masculine and feminine, whose inspirations make me a whole person. It is a growing tidal wave. It shows me doorways between the pages that appear unexpectedly. It carries me to places new and old. The binders reach out and hug me when I need it the most. It is portable and reinforcing. It is a friendship, a crutch, a magic carpet, and a time machine. Alternating between a snail and a 747, its speed constantly fluctuates between short scribbles and long flashes of light.

I read to understand the thought of others. I write in my journal to understand myself. I help shape my destiny by learning to shape the sentences I use. Life speaks for itself, but I listen with my journal. Each written page is a brush stroke added to my life’s painting. Page after page, I view myself in greater depth. One day, I am a bird trapped in a small cage. The next, I am an Eagle soaring close to the face of The Mysterious One.

Throwback Thursday–My Gift of Five Minutes by Courtney Warren


This essay originally ran on the website five years ago.  Forgive the pun, but the topic is timeless.  Enjoy on a Throwback Thursday.  

My Gift of Five Minutes

by Courtney Warren

In five minutes, a man could take a gun and shoot up a mall. In five minutes, a war could begin. In five minutes, a person can die, and in five minutes, thousands of lives can change. A lot can happen in a short amount of time. Things happen in minutes that people spend the rest of their lives wishing they could take back. That’s where my gift comes in.

I wouldn’t give a gift wrapped in a box and tied with a pretty bow. No, I would grant the ability to go back in time and change something we wish we had not done. Think about it. Imagine someone close to you died. Would you go back and use your minutes to tell that person you loved them just one last time? I bet thousands would use their five minutes to try and prevent 9/11 from happening. All it would take is one person at the airport to report the situation to the guards.

Continue reading “Throwback Thursday–My Gift of Five Minutes by Courtney Warren”

Keep the Faith

By David Martin

The more I write in my journal, the more I learn about the world and myself. The more I share my writing with my classes, the more open I become to my students, the more open they become to me, and the better all of our writing becomes. 

Often, I hear students refer to their feelings of isolation from family, friends, and other students. I sense they are stranded on a metaphorical, desert island waiting for a passing steamer to rescue them. Sitting alone under a palm tree, sunburned, and tired of eating coconuts, their lives are blocked. Writing in a journal – one that takes on a personality of its own, one that becomes an extension of the author, one that holds the truth like notes placed in a bottle thrown into the Gulf Stream as a means of salvation – will help create that puff of smoke on the distant horizon indicating help is on the way. 

Many times, students need to see themselves unique individuals. Being different is the price we pay for being better. Following the herd creates a boring sameness, a death-like monotony, and keeps us from achieving our potential. Writing in a journal reflects back to us how truly original we are.

John Hancock Field said, “All worthwhile people have good thoughts, good ideas, and good inventions, but precious few of them ever translate those into actions.”

Wait no more. Writing in a journal encourages me to translate my ideas into actions. If I can write about my ideas, I can see them as real possibilities. If I can capture them in a journal, I refer to them later when I act on them. 

Many students dwell on their negative life experiences, and most of us go through periods like this, sometimes. When I have no one to listen to me, my journal becomes my best friend, my voice in the night, the big brother or sister I never had, my guiding light. Often, simply writing my feeling onto a blank page helps me get through the darkness.

The seventh century Chinese Philosopher, Hui-neng said, “The meaning of life is to see.”

Looking at something is not the same as seeing it. In our complicated world, we have so much to look at, but we see so little. Looking at things demeans life. Seeing things, clearly, gives life meaning.

Writing in a journal forces me to see things, not look at them. I can’t count how many students have told me that by simply writing devotedly in their journals they found a meaning in their life they didn’t know existed.

One of the wisest men I know told me that everyone searches for the meaning to life. He said the answer is not to be found but created. If there is no particular purpose, we must develop one. Following our own unique destiny is challenging for all and frightening for many. We can’t hide in the herd any longer, when following our individual path. Keep the faith. Write on.